Manifest Destiny – Montana

Apple Gourd Art by Wendy Harty 2015

I don’t think I had ever heard the phrase “manifest destiny” Then twice in one week it cropped up in my news feed. Back in 1845, the USA thought that Canada would request annexation eventually. Some claimed it was the right of manifest destiny to spread and possess the whole of the continent which providence had given them for the development of the great experiment of liberty and self government. US expansion was used to justify the removal of Native groups from their homes. This rapid expansion intensified the issue of slavery as new states were added to the Union, leading to the Civil War. With high birth rates and immigration the population of the States went from 5 million to 23 by 1850, the year my second great mother Mary Elizabeth Smith was born in Canada. This is part of her story of what drove millions of Americans westward in search of new land and new opportunities.

My great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Smith Gibbs was of Irish, Scottish and German backgrounds. She was the product of many who went before choosing to leave the shore, cross the Atlantic, and hope for a “city built on a hilltop”. Her birthday was July 7, 1850, born on a farm near St. Mary’s, Ontario, in the township of Mornington. Her parents were homesteaders; her father James William Smith a blacksmith by trade, immigrated from Ireland with the men in the family having been British soldiers; her mother Mary Ann Wilson a descendent of loyalists settled in Ontario after the Revolutionary War. Mary Elizabeth was born into a large family of Smith’s, 6 brothers and 2 sisters. She was 7th in a family of 9.

At the age of 4, Mary Elizabeth boarded the ship with her family, that would take her across the Great Lakes to a new developing community at Port Hope, Michigan. There were no roads or highways other than the water.

The saw mill chimney constucted in 1858, still stands today, 80 feet tall made from 20 ft of sandstone on the bottom, tapering another 60 ft with bricks. It withstood the two Great Huron Fires of 1871 and 1881.

Mary Elizabeth was 8 when the saw mills and chimney were built. All of her brothers and sisters were born at St. Mary’s, Ontario, except for George the year they moved in 1854 and Lendley, 1859, both born at Port Hope. The Smith’s were again pioneers building up the brand new community that would be a major lumber exporting port.

The red arrow is Port Hope, Gore County, Michigan

Civil War broke out when she was 11. Michiganders were critical of slavery and many were abolitionists. After President Lincoln called for volunteers, Michigan was called upon to furnish infantry, Calvary light artillery and engineers and mechanics. 90,000 men left the state or 1/4 of the men. Although the Gibbs were registered, I did not find them joining in the actual fight, possibly because they were (aliens) from Canada and it wasn’t their fight? The men on the farms helped to feed the troops and Michigan forests provided lumber for war materials. No Civil War battles happened in Michigan. When Mary Elizabeth was 17 her mother, died at the age of 48. Mary Elizabeth would marry at the age of 17 to my 2nd great grandfather, Hiram Gibbs, born at Farnham, Brome-Mississiquoi, Quebec. Hiram was 26. The wedding took place at Huron, Michigan on May 8, 1867, four months after her mother died. Three years later, Mary Elizabeth and baby Nellie moved back home to housekeep for her widowed father, James William Smith and brothers, George and Lendley. I assume Hiram Gibbs was away maybe in a logging camp? The next year the devastating Huron fire swept through the region, 1871. James Smith and Hiram Gibbs attended the Mason Lodge at Port Hope and relief efforts were distributed from there coming across the Great Lakes. By the 1880 census, the couple were farming and their family had expanded: Hiram 34, Elizabeth 29, children named: Nellie 11, James 8, Charles 6, my grandfather, George Arthur 5, Marion 3 and Nettie 1.

Hiram’s brother John Gibbs is listed on the same census in 1880, married to Sarah, Children William 11, Annie 10, John 6, Rachel 5, Herman 3 and Winnefred 1. Can you imagine the Sunday gatherings feeding all these cousins growing up together on the shores of Port Huron, Lake Huron, Michigan. The parents had already lived through the devastating fire of 1871. The Huron Daily Tribune wrote an article in the newspaper. The Smith home, built in 1866, a beautiful elegant structure stood in the path of the fire. It escaped the fire of 1871. Was this the home of William James Smith, Elizabeth’s father?

The brothers, Hiram and John Gibbs comforted each other with thoughts of, “The first good rain will put the fires out.” Alas, there was no rain. Only dry hot, hot winds! The year of 1881 another drought would hit their farming and logging community.

The wind was lurking, ready to march to the sea and burn down the town of Port Hope, again. Once again the Gibb’s scanned for smoke on Monday morning, September 5th. They had no knowledge that the greatest calamity was about to explode around them. At 2 p.m. the wind was howling and volumes of smoke were seen in the west. Suddenly a great cloud of darkness covered the entire area. All was darkness! The heat grew until it was almost impossible to breathe and the wind had a hurricane force. Then, everything burst into flames! The new brick country courthouse was built of bricks. 400 people crowded into the tall stately building. Weeping women, crying children and grim faced men were sheltered in the building. At sundown there was a lull in the wind. All the buildings in the little town had burned. Hiram and Mary Elizabeth settled the children between them on the oak floor and spent an uncomfortable night. For days after smoke and flying ashes blotted out the sun. The families would rely on the newly formed Red Cross to provide food and clothing. John and Susan Gibb’s and family would remain at Port Hope but Hiram and Mary Elizabeth decided to accept their manifest destiny.

The towering forests of Michigan, once so majestic were wiped out during the two Thumb fires that swept through after severe droughts in the region. Then winds swept the fires for miles through the area up to the shores of Lake Huron. Hiram and Mary Elizabeth Gibbs had a decision to make. They decided to go west.

Two of their children married in Iowa, so I deduce that is the way they went and stayed long enough for them to find love. West they went, leaving Michigan and Mary Elizabeth’s aging father, James William Smith 80 who would die at age 82 on December 1, 1890 in Gore, Michigan. Nearly 2000 miles through Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and South Dakota the family went. Here a forced stop was made.

Mary Elizabeth bore down. She was 37 years old, about to give birth to her last child. Coming west with them were James Abraham 15, Charles Hiram 13, George Arthur 12, Marion Anna 10, Nettie Estella 8, Lendley 5. Behind at Port Hope, she left two babies, in graves, William Henry, 1881 and Minnie, 1884, both only living two weeks. Her oldest daughter, Nellie Mary at age 17 had married Abram Applegate in 1885 in Iowa.

Rachel Lillian Frances Gibbs made her appearance on September 19, 1887. The Gibbs family had just crossed into the south east corner of the Dakotas when the backache started. This paused their journey. Mary Elizabeth had looked out over the steep embarkments of the Missouri River at Pierre, Hughes County, South Dakota. It was not a state yet being Dakota Territory, but where they would register Rachel’s birth. Should they stay here and put down roots? The Dakota Territory had been open for settlement in 1858 but there were few takers. Hiram and Elizabeth were just ahead of the boom that would start the next year with abundant rain, the swarms of locusts were gone that had plagued the region and free land was offered in the Homestead Act. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills and the coming of the railroad would lead to explosive growth but the family travelled on, Pierre was the end of the rail line and riverboat.

From here they would travel on once Mary and Rachel were strong enough. They were destined to take a wagon train headed west along the 200 mile route known as the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail. It was an old buffalo trail used by the natives and fur traders. They carefully loaded up the wagons pulled by teams of draft animals, usually oxen. Deadwood was a lawless, rowdy mining camp. They kept going.

Mary Elizabeth bit into the apple she had plucked from their own orchard. She was enjoying the cool nights and long sunny days in the valley. It was certainly different from their lake home of Port Hope, Michigan. Their home close to Kalispell, in the Bitterroots was known for its higher quality apples with varieties including the McIntosh. The cherries had already been picked leaving her pink and red stained fingertips. The mild lake influenced climate, pure water and fertile soil had given them an abundant crop of the pleasantly sweet and very juicy fruit. It was a busy time with pickings from the second week of July for a month into August. Now it was time for the apples. The original inhabitants of Chief Charlo’s remnant band of Salish were forced onto their Flathead Reservation in 1891. Copper had been found and Marcus Daly, the Copper Baron, began buying land, building irrigation ditches and planting orchards. Mr. Daly was concerned with feeding his miners at Butte and Anaconda. Real estate investors came buying the land cheaply and selling the promise of an easy and profitable small farm. At first Hiram and Lendley found work being day laborers in the district. By 1903 in a local Kalispell directory, Hiram was listed as fruit grower. There had been planted 300,000 apple trees in this boom, which 100 years later can still be found as gnarled remnants or thriving amongst the new orchards. Any boom does not last. Production would dwindle as pests, including the coddling moth arrived. There was another problem; fruit growers were often swindled by middlemen who never paid after the apples were shipped east.

A family meeting was called in 1903.

The first to arrive was James Abraham Gibbs. Abram had married a girl named Cynthia Anna Trible in Iowa 1897 . They came to the Flathead Valley. Abraham came home at noon and found his wife not well. She complained of feeling very bad, that she seemed to have smothering spells. Abram asked if he should write for her mother to come. She objected but finally assented. She grew worse rapidly and at one o’clock he sent for the doctor, who was unable to ward off the chilly hand of death and she passed five minutes after he came. Abram buried his young wife Cynthia, age 20 in the Demersville Cemetery, Kalispell, Flathead County, Montana. Printed in the Jefferson (Iowa) Souvenir paper May 22, 1897.

Next came Charles Hiram, 29. He’s just became married on July 19, 1903 at Chautauqua, Flathead, Montana to Pearl Young, 15. Marion Anna at 18, had married David Harvey Young in 1894. She had given them their first grandchildren Orlen William McKinley Young in 1896, the next year 1897, Ines both born nearby in Kalispell. Nettie Estella at age 18 had married William Franklin Hughes in 1897. A granddaughter, Grace L was born the spring of 1899. Another girl Violet Chrystal was a newborn at the meeting of 1903. George Arthur, my great grandfather had at age 22 married Lydia May Ruth Wise. She was 16. Within the next three years they had three grandchildren for Mary Elizabeth and Hiram: Olive Vivian April 23, 1899, my grandmother, Arthur Howard a boy 1900 and Mary Minervia November 15, 1901. Lendley Edgar 21 and Rachel Lillian Francis 16 were still single, living at home.

And what did these families decide? Their manifest destiny would send them to the newly opened homestead site at Viking, Alberta.

At the beginning of this blog I mentioned manifest destiny. The article I was reading was referring to Alberta making threats to leave the Canadian federation. Once again Manifest Destiny, the American dream of controlling the entire continent, would be revived, at the prospect of welcoming Alberta as its 51st state. This would strengthen their energy markets and Canada would be dependent on them for their energy. I doubt Hiram and Mary Elizabeth gave this much thought; they were just looking for opportunities for their large extended family and land, not political ideology or visionary speculation.

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